Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.
A 1949 British Black Comedy
from Ealing Studios, starring Sir Alec Guinness
, Dennis Price
, Alec Guinness, Valerie Hobson
, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood
, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness and Alec Guinness
(who plays all eight murdered members of the D'Ascoyne family, including an elderly suffragette).
Louis D'Ascoyne Mazzini is the son of the daughter of the Duke of Chalfont and a poor Italian opera singer. Infuriated by the mésalliance
, her family, the D'Ascoynes, denies any knowledge of Louis' existence, and when his mother dies, will not even grant her burial in the family vault. Louis formulates a plan to kill all the members of the D'Ascoyne family in various ridiculous ways in order to gain what he sees as his justified revenge and place at the head of the D'Ascoyne family. Meanwhile, Louis' childhood sweetheart, Sibella, is laying her own schemes for advancement...though Louis' attractive cousin Edith stands in her way.
The movie has a very dry, ironic tone to it, but there are some moments of complete silliness. For instance, Louis kills one of the D'Ascoynes by shooting an arrow at her hot air balloon (and then reciting a humorous variation on a Longfellow poem*
Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank
by Roy Horniman where the eponymous character is half-Jewish rather than half- Italian. The film changed Israel's name and heritage because the film had a Rank (J. Arthur) as its producer and a film about a half-Jewish serial-killer wouldn't have gone down very well so shortly after the fall of the Nazi Regime in Germany, though the book itself is not anti-Semitic.
This movie provides examples of:
- Acting For Eight: Alec Guinness plays all of the murdered D'Ascoynes.
- In a smaller exmaple, Dennis Price plays both Louis and his opera singer father.
- Adaptation Distillation: Quite a few things are taken away (mostly relatives/victims) and a few things added; the twist ending being the biggest thing. But the book is over 400 pages long so some changes were bound to be made.
- Chalfont is Hammerton in the book and the d'Ascoynes are the Gascoynes
- Affably Evil: Louis, very much so
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Though some of the D'Ascoynes seem less bad than others and Lord Ascoyne D'Ascoyne the banker actually seems like a nice guy — hence Louis's relief that he dies of natural causes and therefore doesn't have to be murdered. Young Henry is also an amiable doormat - Louis comments that "he seemed a very pleasant young fellow, and I regretted that our acquaintanceship must be so short." Doesn't stop Louis from killing him and stealing his wife, of course. Then we have Louis...
- Upon his accession to the Dukedom, Louis' speech to his people makes it seems as though he would be a Benevolent Boss.
- Although, what with murdering at least 7 people (6 D'Ascoynes, young Ascoyne's mistress, and who knows how many other people with that bomb), it could be argued that he's become a straight example of this.
- Asshole Victim: Many of the D'Ascoynes. Especially Young Ascoyne, who gets Louis fired from his job.
- Best Served Cold: Louis sleeps with his old rival's fiancee on the day before their wedding. As Louis remarks:
"I couldn't help feeling that even Sibella's capacity for lying was going to be taxed to the utmost. Time had brought me revenge on Lionel, and as the Italian proverb says, revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold."
- Betty and Veronica: Or rather, Edith and Sibella.
- Chekhov's Skill: Louis practices archery with Edith D'Ascoyne. It comes in handy later.
- Compromising Memoirs: Louis' memoirs, written while in prison.
- Double Vision: The D'Ascoynes. Octuple vision, actually.
- The Edwardian Era: The setting of the story.
- Fate Worse Than Death: Louis references the Victorian meaning (a woman who has been seduced) when he kills the younger D'Ascoyne and his mistress: "I was sorry about the girl, but found some relief in the reflection that she had presumably during the weekend already undergone a fate worse than death."
- Femme Fatale: Sibella
- First-Person Smartass: Louis.
- Goodbye Cruel World: Lionel's suicide note is necessary to clear Louis of the charge of his murder. Ironically, this is one of the few deaths in the movie for which Louis is not responsible.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: The actresses in this film, especially Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood, are often seen clad in the height of Edwardian Era fashion.
- Hunting Accident: How Louis murders Ethelred.
- Hypocrite: Louis when it comes to the Victorian meaning of a Fate Worse Than Death (a woman losing her virginity before marriage). He uses this to rationalize murdering the mistress of young Ascoyne D'Ascoyne along with D'Ascoyne even though she'd done nothing against Louis and wasn't part of Louis' family vendetta. Yet he has no qualms (instead a great deal of smug satisfaction) at personally "inflicting" the same FWTD on Sibella.
- Karmic Twist Ending: A Double Subversion. Louis gets sentenced to death for the one murder he didn't commit. Then he gets acquitted— and then he realizes that he left his memoirs (which describe his real murders) in his cell.
- Klingon Promotion: This is how Louis becomes the Duke of Chalfont.
- Literary Allusion Title: The title is a reference to a Tennyson poem, "Lady Clara Vere de Vere," which Edith quotes at one point during the film.
- Oh Crap: Louis' reaction when he realizes just what they mean by his "memoirs".
- Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Ascoyne D'Ascoyne takes his mistress punting, although his intentions are anything but chaste. When he moors his boat to have his way with her, Louis unties it; causing Ascoyne and his mistress to be swept to their deaths over the weir.
- Pretty in Mink: Sibella and Edith wear some furs, including a huge fox wrap Edith wears at Louis's trial.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: "Il mio tesoro intanto" from Mozart's Don Giovanni serves both to introduce the film and as something of a Leitmotif for Louis' mother.
- Quick Nip: Variant version— Henry d'Ascoyne hides his drinking from his teetotaler wife by keeping it among the chemicals in his photographic darkroom. Surprisingly, he is not offed by Louis putting actual developing fluid in his "developing fluid".
- Repetitive Name; Ascoyne D'Ascoyne.
- Running Gag: At one point in the movie, someone speaks to Louis about "a matter of some delicacy". Louis remarks in voiceover that whenever someone talks about a matter of some delicacy, they're usually euphemistically referring to a matter of extreme indelicacy. Throughout the rest of the movie, people talk about "matters of some delicacy".
- Talking to Himself: Guinness.
- The Vicar: The Reverend Lord Henry
- Uncanny Family Resemblance: You'd think the D'Ascoynes were all played by the same actor or something.
- Unexpected Successor: Louis is eighth in line for the dukedom.
- Villain Protagonist: Louis plans to murder eight people, most of whom he's quite friendly with — and you want to see him do it.
- Wicked Cultured: Louis, who shows himself rather more cultivated than the wealthier members of the D'Ascoyne family.